There are many projects to get involved with the DFN from orbital modelling to hardware design to meteorite analysis. As part of the Space Science and Technology Centre, projects are highly multi-disciplinary and are suitable for students with backgrounds in physics, astronomy, geophysics, geology, data science, maths and engineering.

Meteorite Analysis

Meteorites are the basis of our understanding of the formation and evolution of the early Solar System. These PhD projects tie in with a larger scale project known as the Global Fireball Observatory. Prof. Tomkins collaborates with scientists at Curtin University and elsewhere to recover newly fallen meteorites across Australia using a widely distributed all-sky camera network and weather radar. His role in this project is to lead expeditions to recover meteorites and to conduct petrological analysis on the new meteorite specimens. This allows linking of specific types of meteorites to their orbital origins. PhD students working in the project will be intimately involved in desert expeditions to recover meteorites, and will use the new meteorites as the foundation of their research, supplemented with existing meteorites as required. Research will focus on using a combination of petrology and geochemistry to improve our understanding of the evolution of asteroids and planets early in the Solar System’s history. Students will be given the flexibility needed, and actively encouraged, to follow their own interests within this broad remit. Students will use the Australian Synchrotron, which is situated adjacent to the Monash University campus, and other advanced facilities as required, including experimental petrology, split stream LA-MC-ICPMS, FEG-microprobe, FEG-SEM, FEG-TEM, laser Raman, XRF, XRCT – all housed within or close to the SEAE.

Background preferred: interest in meteorites and planetary science.
Main supervisor: Dr. Andy Tomkins
Expression of interest

Hazardous asteroids - Strength of Interplanetary Material

Recent space missions to asteroids have gathered detailed information not just on the composition of these bodies, but also on their material properties – e.g. their strength, and whether they are a rubble pile or a single monolithic rock. But we know very little about the strength of small objects in the metre to 10s metre class. This project will look at the breakup of meteoroids in our atmosphere to calculate the bulk strengths of these objects, be it by seismic, infrasound or photometry. It will also look at the origins of this material to determine if there is a correlation between strengths and any specific orbits or regions of the Solar System, or specific asteroids and their families. The results will inform our understanding of the asteroid hazard (do small objects all generate airburst ‘Tunguska-like’ explosions), the lifetime of debris in the inner Solar System, and how we date the ages of planetary surfaces.

Background preferred: astronomy, geophysics, or physics.
Main supervisor: Dr. Eleanor Sansom

Meteorite Search and Recovery with Machine Learning

The Desert Fireball Network (DFN), operated by Curtin consists of a large array of astronomical cameras in the outback to recover fresh meteorites with orbits, by observing incoming meteors, and then searching for the fallen rock. Searching for meteorite falls in the remote outback is a costly activity, traditionally done with teams of people camped on site, searching the area on foot. Recently SSTC has successfully developed a drone-based approach, using machine learning to identify meteorites in aerial imagery, and recovered the first fresh meteorite found with a UAV. This project will focus on continuing this development, using the drone in the field, enhancing it's capability and the system's machine learning abilities to support new terrains and new detection techniques, and as needed to recover fresh meteorites from the DFN. There will also be the opportunity for the applicant to investigate applied uses of this aerial anomaly-detection technology, such as search and rescue or environmental monitoring.

Background preferred: Engineering, Physics, and Software OR Earth Science and Geochemistry
Main supervisor: Dr. Martin Towner
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Depending on your interest, we likely have a project for you. The specific projects above may be more suited to the backgrounds listed, but we will consider applications from other backgrounds if suitable.
We currently have one available international scholarship available at the moment.
The next round of scholarships open to Australian and NZ students will likely open in June/July 2023.

Background on the research environment

Planetary science involves the study of solar system formation and evolution, the geology of planets and their atmospheres, asteroid impacts and dynamics. Fundamentally, it is the study of how a nebula of dust and gas can evolve to a planetary system, and generate planets capable of supporting life. It pulls together multiple fields, pure and applied, including engineering.

Curtin University has the largest planetary science research program in Australia, inclusive of the Desert Fireball Network, and is looking to expand this vibrant and diverse team with new PhD students.

The Space Science and Technology Centre has pioneered the development of large networked facilities using hardened autonomous observatories. The Desert Fireball Network (DFN) has 50 autonomous stations across Australia. It has been observing ~2.5 million km2 of Australian skies since 2015. It provides a spatial context for meteorites – we can track a rock back to where it originated in the solar system, and forward to where it lands, for recovery by a field party. The database of >1400 meteoroid orbits is larger than the combined literature dataset for >70 years of observation, providing a unique window into the distribution of debris in the inner solar system. With 14 international partners, and facilitated by NASA, the project has recently expanded to a global facility. The Global Fireball Observatory (GFO) will cover x5 the observing area of the DFN, able to track debris entering our atmosphere 24 hours a day. These networks informed the development of a satellite tracking network – FireOPAL – with Lockheed Martin. Although designed for satellite observations, FireOPAL also happens to be a world-class astronomical transient observatory. The DFN, GFO, and FireOPAL are helping us answer fundamental questions in planetary science and astronomy. If you would like to be part of this team, and work with colleagues in universities around the world, at NASA, and in industry, read on.